Unknown Neighbours theatre review (Festival of Live Art, Melbourne)

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In an increasingly mediated world – here you are reading this on a glittering, brilliant steel tablet, or having it read to you by a robot you’re on a first name basis with – there’s a particular challenge involved in creating a work of art that not only expresses our humanity, but does so directly.

‘People don’t even know their neighbours anymore,’ we’re oft reminded in the same sentence as we’re told that millenials are addicted to avocado, and being asked to program the damn VCR. Still, if they’re as boring as most of my Facebook friends, or if their lives are as predictable as my Instagram friends’, or if their dinner party conversation is as lacking in wit as anyone I follow on Twitter – then who the hell cares?

And yet, they are worth considering- these neighbours – and I’m not just talking about the fake Dee storyline? So we have Ranters Theatre (Australia) and Creative VaQi (Korea)’s collaborative performance work, Unknown Neighbours, a work that is nothing if not contemporary – and somehow timeless as well – and it’s in this combination where we find the charm.

The performance has the soft yet subversive, knowing feel of playing hide and seek with a child you let win.

Unknown Neighbours takes us into strangers’ homes, a park, a church and finally a theatre, in a careful, gentle, quiet cup-of-tea, indie folk record of a performance work.  For the most part it asks no dramatic, or even academic, questions. It presents more as a series of fugue states, lullabies – a sleepwalk.

This technique avoids the work becoming simply a mirror, instead blurring the limits that distuingish it from the reality it sits in. The performance has the soft yet subversive, knowing feel of playing hide and seek with a child you let win – or in waking up early to sneak into the lounge room and watch TV before your parents are awake. This sort of theatre asks you surrender to the change of pace and rhythm, and in return it occasionally transports you by playing with your expectations.

While the site-specificity is a completely new undertaking to previous Ranters’ works, the piece sits within the expressive style and ethos of the existing ouvre. For Ranters, an interest in the ‘hyper-real’ has previously been deployed in explorations of public/private divides, contemplations of life/mortality, and the dreamt and imagined self – more often than not presented with a certain naturalism.

The naturalistic, and in this case, familiar manner with which Unknown Neighbours engages with its subjects provides the audience space to study. From a low-brow angle I was attracted to the part of the show that was basically Auction Day Open House sticky-beaking, but the work’s bare style and site-specificity can also be enjoyed in the way that one might connect to the interventionist suburban documentary photography of Ian Strange.

Further to this, Ranters and Creative VaQi, in the first half of the work, split the audience into four to attend four seperate homes; each group led by a different performer. The work then relies to some extent on the curation of the homes included in the work, and then also the absent people who normally live in them.

In my experience, a Korean actress (speaking only in Korean, and using a hand held projector for translation) led us through the home of a film producer. As such, there were innocent references to filmmaking in the performance style  that I’ve no doubt were not present in the other three groups. Whether Ranters/Creative VaQi are honoring the eponymous neighbours of the homes that the bulk of the show presents, and how much the possibility of play is limited by the position of the guests is a continuing question of the work.

At one point, we walked through an empty church while a synthisythed and digitally-effected soundtrack played through the old building. This uncanny combination of reflection and abstraction of ritual, sanctuary, and performance, perfectly encapsulated the wider experience of the work  – neither iconoclastic or reverent.

The work succeeds in awakening the sort of intimacy, danger, and difficulties that only live performance can provide.

This generous, if detatched tone, guided us through domestic banality, the security of friendship, career, fireside stories, the comforts of community, a partial song performed over a Skype call, a short play within a play, and even an adorable little dog that roamed around the theatre at whim. These were all adopted for this locality, a portrayal of the milieu from which they’ve sprung.

With none of the spectacle or participation of, say, Rimini Protokoll’s ‘100% series’, nor the wider community relevance of any number of National Theatre Wales works, there is still resonance in these two strands of site-specific performance making.

Unknown Neighbours delivers more esoteric interests and the post-post-punk fatalism we saw in parts of Come Away With Me To the End of the World. I’m interested to see how Unknown Neighbours compares to Rimini Protokoll’s new work Home Visit which promises a similarly intimate experience.

And much like both of these Rimini Protokoll works, I’m interested to see how the work looks in Korea, or Europe, or whereever else it finds itself. What happens, for example, when the work is presented in a city with more intrusive social drama, or what would this work have looked like if it had been presented during the theatrical turmoil of an election. I also wonder about the small risks and limitations involved in having an audience of strangers in a private home. Here the work succeeds in awakening the sort of intimacy, danger, and difficulties that only live performance can provide.

There are only a couple of nights left to catch Unknown Neighbours in its premiere season at the Festival of Live Art. Places are limited so I  recommend you act fast to catch this singular experience.

At Theatre Works, St Kilda until March 18

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